Macho Brands Eye a New Audience: Young Women

After decades of catering to men, the NFL, Ford and Stanley are going after a different demographic

February 9, 2024 6:39 am
Macho brands like the NFL, Ford and Stanley are now courting young women through celebrities like Taylor Swift and Sydney Sweeney and social media influencers on TikTok
The new teen girl pack: NFL merch, a Stanley cup and a Ford Mustang.

Ten years ago, if you pictured the typical American who watches football on Sundays, dreams of owning a Mustang and never leaves home without an insulated, indestructible beverage container, you’d see a middle-aged man. Hell, even a year ago that would have been the default image. Now, traditionally masculine brands like the NFL, Ford and Stanley are courting a new demographic: young women.

On Super Bowl Sunday, teen girls across the country will tune in to watch the Chiefs take on the 49ers in hopes of catching glimpses of Taylor Swift, who will reportedly be cheering on her boyfriend, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. Many of these same Swifties will be sipping out of the now ubiquitous Quencher, a stainless steel bottle made by Stanley, a company whose drinkware was long marketed to blue-collar workers and outdoorsmen. While scrolling through Instagram or TikTok during commercial breaks, some will be targeted with ads promoting the new Ford Mustang GT, thanks to the automaker’s new spokesperson, the actress Sydney Sweeney. 

For the average Boomer or Gen X man, it may be surprising to find that they now share the same interests as their daughter, niece or — gulp — granddaughter. To Misty Heggeness, associate professor at the University of Kansas and author of the upcoming book Swiftynomics: Women in Today’s Economy, this demographic flip-flop was entirely predictable. 

“If you would have asked me this question at any other time outside of coming off the year 2023, it would be a surprise,” Heggeness said of these previously masculine brands now targeting young women. “But given the environment we’re in right now, I don’t think it’s surprising at all. I think there’s been a real shift to recognize the power of the female consumer. I do think that the Taylor Swift Eras Tour, Beyoncé’s tour…I think it made a lot of businesses do a double take.” 

Crediting this entire trend to general Swiftie mania misses the larger picture, though. As Heggeness notes, women have made up a large percentage of NFL fandom for a while; the league said in 2020 that 47% of its fans were women. The Stanley cup craze, per reporting from The New York Times, can be traced back to 2017 when three women championed and sold the Quencher tumbler on their blog. As for Sydney Sweeney, her first official campaign with Ford launched in March 2023, the same time as the Eras Tour, before those concerts had snowballed into the conversation-dominating event of the year. 

The through line here isn’t Taylor Swift, nor is it Barbie, the concurrent cultural phenomenon showing, among other things, the consumerist might wielded by women. After all, in the NFL’s case, the league isn’t in any public partnership with Swift. She’s not a paid spokesperson for American football. Nonetheless, her mere relationship to it (by way of a relationship with Kelce) has buoyed the sport: According to Nielsen, NFL viewership across all games rose 7% this year, with 12- to 17-year-old girls contributing an 8.1% increase in their demographic. 

That is the key: the nature of Swift’s relationship to the NFL. Instead of the league paying her to say that she loves football in hopes that young women will become more interested in a sport historically associated with men cracking beers with their buddies, her fans get to see her in a stadium suite jumping for joy, yelling at the referees and simply having fun. It’s authentic — and just as the NFL is capitalizing on that organic promotional opportunity to speak to a new audience, so are brands like Stanley and Ford. 

“We didn’t get an actress and tell her to be interested in cars,” says Lauren Vrazilek, manager of stakeholder advocacy, purpose and trust communications at Ford, of their partnership with Sweeney. “We had someone who’s super into her cars to begin with — she grew up in a mechanics shop — and we’re just embracing her. I think everyone’s seeing how well that lands.” 

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Sweeney, whose breakout role in HBO’s Euphoria has been followed with starring turns in the rom-com Anyone But You and the upcoming horror movie Immaculate, came onto Ford’s radar with her TikTok account @syds_garage, where she originally posted about restoring a vintage Bronco (in the garage of Rod Emory, the vintage Porsche virtuoso who also happens to be the father of one of her best friends). 

“We were kind of fangirling over her, and saying, wouldn’t it be cool if we could do something?” says Erica Martin, Ford marketing communications manager. “And then the stars aligned and it worked out.” The partnership has extended to TikToks where Sweeney teaches people how to check their oil, an interview with Ford CEO Jim Farley on his podcast Drive, and a giveaway where one person will win a custom 2024 Mustang GT inspired by Sweeney’s own 1965 Mustang, which she named “Britney.” 

Ford has naturally marketed to women in the past, but vintage Broncos and new Mustangs? Those types of vehicles have largely been directed at men, but they’re also the ones that Sweeney was personally invested in, so Ford saw a chance to take advantage of that.

“As we’ve gotten to know Sydney, we’ve collaborated with her on ideas…and what she thinks will resonate with her fans,” says Martin, noting that women, Millennials and Gen Zers are “a huge priority” in terms of new audiences.

“This is something that is happening organically, and the companies are just really embracing what’s already happening, right?” Vrazilek adds. “Same with the NFL. I think the same with Stanley.” 

The drinkware company doesn’t have a single spokesperson as popular as Sweeney or Swift, but Stanley’s ascent to a cultural phenomenon large enough to be parodied by SNL was paved by a similarly powerful force: social media influencers. “We will introduce this cup to an army of other influencers on Instagram, and it will blow your mind what women selling to women looks like,” Ashlee LeSueur, one of the women behind The Buy Guide, the website that helped popularize the Quencher, said in a meeting with Stanley, per The New York Times. Terence Reilly, the president of Stanley, attributed the success of the product to “listening to female voices.”

“That’s one of the smart things I think these companies have done in terms of marketing — to really just say, we’re going to turn it over to someone on the inside and see what they can do, and then it just explodes,” says Heggeness. 

For her part, Heggeness hasn’t always been a fan of Taylor Swift, despite what working on a book called Swiftynomics may have you believe. Instead, she became a fan when she heard a specific track off the pop star’s 2019 album Lover.

“The first song where I started paying attention to her was ‘The Man,’ which talks about the challenges of being a woman and trying to be successful,” she says. “That was so relatable to me, and the lyrics were so spot on.”

“I can’t tell you the number of rooms I’ve sat in where somebody says, ‘I don’t understand what the big deal is about Taylor Swift. She’s just this mediocre white lady singing music,’” she adds. “You may find her music mediocre because you don’t relate to it, but women who have had the similar experiences that she’s been having and been treated the same way, they will latch onto her.” 

They will also latch onto the things she likes, whether it’s the NFL, a Ford Mustang or an oversized water bottle. You can bet that other brands, no matter how historically macho they are, will continue to cash in on that authenticity for as long as the views and sales keep breaking records.

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